Israel goes into damage control after U.S backlash

Netanyahu's strident complaints about U.S. policy on Iran in mid-September plunged U.S.-Israeli relations into crisis, but also spurred a backlash at home and in the U.S. media

Israel goes into damage control after U.S backlash

World Bulletin/News Desk

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought on Friday to ease tensions over how to deal with Iran's nuclear program, presenting a show of solidarity on the ultimate goal.

Obama, widely seen as having snubbed Netanyahu by not meeting face to face with him on his U.S. visit, spoke instead by phone to the Israeli leader amid signs of movement toward a truce in their war of words over how to confront Tehran.

Netanyahu used his U.N. speech a day earlier to keep pressure on Washington to set a "red line" for Tehran. But in a softening of his approach, he signaled that no Israeli attack on Iran was imminent before the Nov. 6 U.S. presidential election.

With an eye to the close U.S. presidential race, Netanyahu also fielded a call during his New York visit from Obama's Republican rival, Mitt Romney, who has accused the president of being too hard on a close U.S. ally and not tough enough on Iran.

Obama's aides believe, however, that he has played his cards right with Netanyahu, with whom the president has had a notoriously testy relationship.

Netanyahu's strident complaints about U.S. policy on Iran in mid-September plunged U.S.-Israeli relations into crisis, but also spurred a backlash at home and in the U.S. media for seeming to meddle in American politics.

In recent days, the Israelis have sought to dial down the rhetoric, culminating in Netanyahu's speech to the U.N. General Assembly, which was widely seen as sending a message that Israel would not blindside Washington with a unilateral attack on Iran any time soon.

"The two leaders underscored that they are in full agreement on the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," the White House said in a summary of their 20-minute phone conversation.

The White House stopped short of saying Obama had given any ground on his resistance to issuing an ultimatum to Tehran, as Netanyahu has repeatedly demanded.

"It was a good conversation. They discussed all the issues," said a senior Israeli official.

An Obama aide went further, saying, "The temperature is lower than it had been."

Netanyahu dramatically ramped up pressure on Obama earlier this month when he insisted that the United States did not have a "moral right" to hold Israel back from taking action against Iran because Washington had not set its own limits on Tehran's nuclear developments.

That was followed by word that Obama would not meet Netanyahu during the Israeli leader's U.S. visit to address the United Nations - widely viewed as a snub.

Obama's aides were furious that Netanyahu was trying to put pressure on the president in the midst of the election campaign and refused to budge on the red line issue despite the risk of alienating pro-Israel voters in election battleground states like Florida and Ohio.

At the same time, Israeli officials - mindful of the danger of antagonizing the Jewish state's main ally and military aid provider - moved into damage-control mode.

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, flew back for a short visit to Jerusalem last weekend, during which he urged Netanyahu to tone down public statements that could be construed as interfering in the U.S. election or supporting Romney, according to sources in the Jewish community in Washington.

The Israeli desire to defuse the crisis may also have reflected an interpretation of recent U.S. opinion polls showing a widening of Obama's lead over Romney, who has suffered a series of campaign stumbles.

Romney, speaking to reporters on his campaign plane, said he and Netanyahu agreed that Iran must be denied nuclear capabilities but did not agree on specific "red lines" to confront Tehran.

"I do not believe in the final analysis we will have to use military action," Romney said. "I certainly hope we don't have to. I can't take that action off the table."

In his U.N. speech, Netanyahu held up a cartoon-like drawing of a bomb with a fuse and literally drew a red line just below a label reading "final stage," in which Iran would supposedly be 90 percent along the path to having weapons-grade material.

Nevertheless, his warning was widely interpreted as some giving breathing space to Obama, who has urged more time for sanctions and diplomacy to work.

By referring to a spring or summer 2013 time frame for Iran to complete the next stage of uranium enrichment, the Israeli leader seemed to dispel fears that Israel might strike Iran before the U.S. election.

Netanyahu's praise for Obama's stern words for Iran in his own U.N. speech on Tuesday - although it lacked any specific ultimatum - was also seen as a sign that the Israeli leader wanted a truce in the unusually public dispute with Washington.

"I think we are moving in a direction where the differences that were there, which were always tactical and not strategic, are in fact being managed at this point," Dennis Ross, Obama's former Middle East adviser, told MSNBC.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 29 Eylül 2012, 12:26